Bill Nye (the science guy) came to speak at CU a few weeks ago. I was pretty psyched about going to see him, considering I have fond memories of watching Bill Nye the Science guy after coming home from school on PBS. His show (for the 2 people who have never seen it) did what seems to be so challenging for many science education programs: it made science cool! The show was invigorating, exciting, interesting, enthusiastic, fun… it was cool! True to form Nye’s talk was just as enthusiastic and exciting as my 12 year-old-self would have imagined.
Here are some highlights of his talk that I found particularly interesting. You can read more about the event over at the CU Independent.
Do More With Less – Not Less With Less
In addition to unbounded enthusiasm and excitement, Bill Nye displayed characteristics often missing when discussing the future: hope and optimism. When presenting the problems facing our planet he touched upon the gloomy topics of climate change, over-population, and increasing scarcity of resources. He made a point however of noting that many people see this future and will tell you to do less with less, which is a pessimistic point of view. It is one of meek acceptance when facing problems. He instead put forward the option that rather than just making do with less, we humans are capable of shaping our own world and we should be able to figure out how to do more with less. He pointed out that we are now able to make carbon nanotubes which are thousands of times stronger than steel, and made with one of the planet’s most abundant elements: carbon. We currently can’t make anything reasonably sized with these materials but the opportunity is there. He also presented a number of intriguing ideas that could be implemented, from microbubbles that could cool the planet to skyscrapers that grow their own food to elevated bike tunnels that provide a constant tail wind for bike commuters in cities. It’s this message of hope, and our ability to rise to the challenges before us, instead of just accepting the problems, that I found to be very apt and encouraging.
Get Involved – Shape Your Own Future
One aspect that makes Bill Nye such a wonderful speaker is that the audience can tell that he is extremely passionate about the things that he does and he wants to share that passion with everyone. His theme woven throughout the talk was that everyone has the ability to (dare he say it) change the world. He was also 100% supportive and encouraging of everyone and every idea. When asked by a student when he thought Warp Drives would be invented – allowing us to travel the galaxy like Star Trek – instead of simply dismissing the idea out of hand and replying that there is no way to travel faster than the speed of light and moving on, he openly encouraged the student to find out more. He noted that while currently we don’t know how to move things faster than the speed of light, there are huge areas of physics that we don’t know anything about. For example, many scientists agree that something like dark matter is responsible for many odd observations about our universe. Calculations predict that dark matter and dark energy account for about 95.4% of all energy and mass in the known universe, and yet we don’t know a single thing about it because we don’t know what it is. The theory fits the observations but we have no clue what dark matter is. Could we send out a probe to collect a vial full of the stuff? Who knows? Bill says that instead of waiting to see if it will happen, go out and try and learn more about it and take an active role in shaping the world that you want to live in. I found this encouragement and openness on his part to be a very refreshing way to look at things, and a good way to inspire people to take action about things that they are interested in.
Joy of Discovery
Bill recounted a tale from his childhood where he was winding up one of those wooden rubber band powered toy airplanes (after using soap on the rubber band which allowed him to wind it tighter). He had been modifying the wings and flaps all summer to see what effect they would have, and this time when the let it go it did three perfect loops and came right back to his hand. His boyhood reaction to this was simple amazement: WOW! So Cool! He called this the “Moment of Discovery”, when something happens that is just so cool and interesting that you have to find out more about it. He thinks (and I agree) that if we can find a way to replicate these moments of discovery in the classroom, we could get many more students interested in studying science and technology.
Q and A
Sometimes at the open question sessions you get some questions that come waaaay out of left field (such as inquiring as to when we will get warp drive capabilities). I was a bit worried that this would happen with the questions posed by students to Bill, but luckily this was not the case and we were treated to some really thoughtful questions and some great answers. A few of my favorite questions and answers (I’ve paraphrased BN’s responses):
Q: What would you change about the current education system?
BN: First: increase the quality and number of elementary school science teachers. Everyone who has a passion for astronomy, or molecular biology, or any other discipline got it before they were ten. Encouraging scientific curiosity and passion at a young age is critical. Secondly: figure out how to teach algebra more effectively. Many students top out their math education while learning algebra, and it is a skill that people need to be comfortable with to move on in the world of science and engineering.
Q: What can we do to increase science awareness in everyday life?
BN: Know what planets are visible in the night sky and the current phase of the moon – knowledge that is nearly useless in today’s society, but extremely important for those interested in the universe outside of our small place in it.
I can certainly trace my desires to explore science and technology back to Bill Nye, as I am sure can many others. I hope that we can get some more “Bill Nye”s in the future to be ambassadors of science to the planet!